The combat of Navas de Membrillo of 29 December 1811 was a minor clash between a British and Portuguese expedition under General Hill and part of the French garrison of Estremadura. Hill had spent two inactive months on the Portuguese border, before receiving orders to conduct a raid towards Merida, where part of Dombrouski’s 5th French Division was relatively isolated. Wellington hoped that this expedition would distract Soult from his pursuit of the small Spanish army of General Ballesteros and from the siege of Tarifa.
Hill crossed into Spain on 27 December with 12,000 men, and advanced along the north bank of the Guadiana River. On 29 December, with his column close to Merida, Hill was unlucky enough to run into a small French detachment which had been sent out to find supplies. This force was made up of three companies from the 88th Regiment supported by a troop of hussars. Hill ordered two squadrons from the 13th Light Dragoons and two from the 2nd Hussars of the King’s German Legion to attack this force, but Captain Neveux, commanding the infantry, formed his men into squares and ordered them to retreat towards a nearby forest of cork trees.
Hill’s cavalry made five attempts to charge the French squares, each without success. After the fifth charge the French reached the safety of the trees, and were able to escape to Merida, after losing two dead and nine wounded. The British cavalry lost 3 dead and 36 wounded in their attempts to break into the French squares. Forewarned of Hill’s approach, Dombrouski evacuated Merida and began to retreat back toward Soult’s army in Andalusia. Hill occupied Merida, taking 160,000lb of wheat. He then pressed the French as they continued their retreat, fighting a second action at Los Santos on 3 January. Once it became clear that the French had been forced to abandon the siege of Tarifa, Hill pulled back into Portugal.